Japan's new leadership rode wave of discontent

But now it must fulfill promises

The Associated PressSeptember 1, 2009 

— Shopkeeper Yoshio Matsumura has always supported the opposition, even when it seemed like a lost cause.

On Sunday, however, Japanese voters joined him in droves, leading an election revolt that ousted the country's conservatives after more than a half century of rule and put the untested Democratic Party of Japan firmly in control.

"People had been fed up for a long time," said Matsumura, who lives in Saitama prefecture, which is next to Tokyo. "Their frustration reached a boiling point, and they finally rose up."

Official results were still being counted Monday, but reports in all major media said the Democrats had won more than 300 of the 480 seats in the powerful lower house of parliament. That is more than enough for the party to choose the next prime minister and control the national agenda.

"I think people realized this time how powerful their one vote could be and that collectively, those votes could lead to something much bigger," said Keiko Nishibori, who is originally from Japan's northern island of Hokkaido and has no firm party identity. "Sunday gave us confidence that we, indeed, have a voice."

The Democrats rode a wave of discontent that made the choice of new leaders attractive to many voters, but now the party must deliver fresh solutions to a slew of entrenched problems.

Although Japan emerged from a yearlong recession in the second quarter, the overall economy remains weak. The unemployment rate hit a record 5.7 percent in July, and spending continues to fall amid worries about jobs and wages. The party must also figure out how to cope with a rapidly aging and shrinking population, as well as national anger over a recent pension scandal.

To start, the Democrats have promised to expand the social safety net and reshape the world's second-largest economy. Their proposals include a monthly cash handout of 26,000 yen ($280) to families with children, toll-free highways, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts -- an expensive menu of ideas that critics have said is financially unfeasible.

One woman said voters will feel a bigger sense of achievement if the Democrats can actually deliver on those promises.

"If our life changes for the better, in a couple of years, we can be proud of what we did," Mineko Osaka said. "Then that will convince even more people to be interested in national elections."

The 40-year-old real estate agent said the big victory was a shock, even though most polls had predicted a blowout for the Democratic Party.

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